Friday Song: “We Are the World”

A night to remember, a song that sparked a new direction, and a documentary that brings them together

Written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, and produced by Quincy Jones, “We Are the World” boasted an all-star slate of singers, and quickly became one of the top-selling singles of all time. It reached #1 on various charts around the world, has been responsible for raising $80 million for famine relief in Africa, and helped to accelerate a generation of music and entertainment activism.

The movement was arguably catalyzed the previous year with the release of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” which was written by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure. It reached #1 in 13 different countries, and raised millions for famine relief in Ethiopia. Geldof would be the face of Live Aid in 1985, the famous trans-Atlantic concert event. He also played a role in the recording of this song.

For “We Are the World,” songwriting was completed the night before the song was recorded. Assembling a slate of talent in the US for one night was only possible because the American Music Awards were taking place in Los Angeles at the time. The awards show was hosted by Richie, who performed two numbers and won five awards that night, including “Favorite R&B/Soul Song.” After the show, the attendees who had agreed to record the song were whisked to a local recording studio, and spent the night recording the song.

  • Madonna, who was not invited, asked where everyone had gone, and was told people were too tired and had gone home.

The meat of the event is captured in the wonderful documentary The Greatest Night in Pop, which was released on Netflix at the end of January. There is a lot to take in — for instance, some awards Richie won had different (and startling) names, there were well-known “troublemakers” to manage among the singers, and one singer overindulged in wine, leading to a delay as he fought to get his line right.

In the documentary, you get to hear these singers’ voices in isolation, recorded maybe only by a videocamera’s microphone. It reminds you of what a different level of talent we’re talking about. Michael Jackson’s pure, angelic tone. Bruce Springsteen’s gritty, yearning power. Dionne Warwick’s sky-high strength and style. Cyndi Lauper’s soaring, sassy vocals. Huey Lewis’ warm, soulful tone.

Most of the artists didn’t like the song, but Richie figured they wouldn’t — as he describes it, when you have this many different people singing, you’re writing more of a template than a song.

It’s also interesting clocking who isn’t interviewed later in life about the session.

I’d filed this song away as an anomaly, but it helped popularize an entire approach to using music, “aid” concerts, and festivals for social causes and charitable giving. And that’s something.